Our CEO Richard Crespin, moderated a virtual roundtable for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) exploring the processes behind successful multi-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speakers and panelists included: 

  • Ben Hecht, President and CEO, Living Cities 
  • Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever
  • Andrew Natsios, Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, Texas A&M University and former USAID Administrator
  • Daniel F. Runde, Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair and Director, Project on Prosperity and Development, CSIS

The panel discussed immediate and long-term strategies available to leaders within multi-sector and multi-stakeholder collaborations as they both alleviate the present COVID-19 crisis and build resilience for the post-crisis world. Panelists touched on the complexity of systemic issues created by COVID-19, how that complexity requires collective action through networks across sectors and different stakeholders, and how such networks can form now and in the future.


To kick off the conversation, Ben Hecht, President and CEO of Living Cities, observed that collaboration during a time of crisis is usually an exercise of established connections — often, crises exacerbate underlying issues that established cross-sector partnerships and communities deal with on a daily basis. “Activating” collaboration during a crisis, such as Hecht’s example of Citi’s involvement with a medical response capacity building fund with the United Nations, is easier when it comes from precedent. 

Takeaway #1: Collaboration Tests “Muscle Memory”

This “muscle memory” is put to use throughout different phases of COVID-19 response programs. Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer at Unilever, expanded on this idea, noting that Paul Polman — Unilever’s former CEO — involved the company with the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through his sitting on the United Nation’s High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This in turn established richer connections with global NGOs, civil society, and UN agencies, enhancing Unilever’s understanding of global advocacy methods behind water, sanitation, and hygiene issues that are critical in combating the spread of COVID-19. 

Through these relationships, Unilever was able to: 

1. Look internally to ensure that employees are protected through provision of needed technology and equipment, as well as mental/physical health resources.

2. Work with national governments and international institutions to immediately supply critical products, including its soaps.

3. Plan long term for changing consumer patterns by shifting production lines toward manufacturing masks and sanitizers.

4. Collaborate across civil society and governments to holistically support distressed areas of the world.

Takeaway #2: Crises Require Timely Responses and Respect for Complexity

Andrew Natsios, Director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, Texas A&M University and former USAID Administrator, then dove into his decades of experience to outline the main players of the international humanitarian response system for acute crises that could tackle the COVID-19 crisis:

1. Official donor aid agencies (e.g., USAID and the Humanitarian Aid Department of the European Commission).

2. NGOs across the globe.

3. International Organizations (e.g., UN agencies like UNICEF and the United Nations Development Program).

4. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

5. Private industry.

Drawing on his time as USAID Administrator, Natsios commented on how this system has matured over the past 30 years into the system we have today. Donors provide funding, NGOs contribute manpower and implement programs, and international organizations “give an international aura” to emergency response.

Natsios added that private industry has played an enhanced role in recent years, catalyzed by USAID’s Public Private Alliance Program, which formed in 2001 under his leadership. When he left USAID in 2006, the program encompassed $20 billion — 75% of which was private money.

Turning to how this system must be leveraged, Natsios articulated the importance of understanding how each player functions during humanitarian response.

“Multi-actor responses are very complex. If you don’t understand the complexity and you don’t understand what the motivation is of people and groups involved, then you can get into trouble.”

– Andrew Natsios

He then stated the importance of defining the problem and knowing that time is of the essence in fast-onset crises like pandemics. All actors must agree on steps that need to be taken first and early action allows leaders to more easily control the situation and stay ahead of the curve. Delayed response means “the disaster drives you instead of you driving the disaster response.”

Takeaway #3: Use your Superpower to Recreate the System after Crisis

A common thread as the conversation progressed was the importance of convening complementary strengths to address COVID-19’s far-reaching impacts. Through innovative collective action, long-standing issues can be approached in a new way and the system can reinvent itself.

For instance, Hecht pointed out that although pandemics don’t discriminate, the effects of COVID-19 are playing out along the boundaries of systemic inequality, providing an example of disproportionate deaths of people of color due to COVID-19 in the United States. This indicates that “we have to keep our eye on the prize” and both respond to the crisis and take this opportunity to “re-imagine the underlying system” that created these results in the first place. Hecht argued that to address these systemic issues that lack an individual cause, multi-sector and multi-stakeholder collaboration are the main path forward.

Marmot provided an example of Unilever’s COVID-19 global handwashing campaign with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, which aims to reach one billion people. It brings together the unique strengths of each sector by incorporating Unilever’s advertising and behavior change expertise, academic expertise from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and community involvement of government and civil society to shift norms surrounding hygiene and slow the spread of COVID-19 around the world.

Unilever has also joined the World Economic Forum COVID Action Platform. Marmot hoped that such policy can create a framework for collective action to address other collective action issues like climate change, citing how quickly emissions have dropped since global social distancing began.

“When we, the world, have faced this imminent crisis, we’ve shown that if we take collective action, rather than just relying on our own self-interest, the impact can be far greater. . . I would like to think moving forward that that will be a catalyst for action in other areas like climate change.”

-Rebecca Marmot

Natsios provided similar analogies regarding the varied purposes of international institutions. For instance, the organizations included in his summary of the international disaster response system deal with immediate crisis response, while international financial institutions can shore up economies in the developing world that have been hurt by sudden declines in remittances, exports, and tourism. The World Health Organization can conduct comprehensive field research over time and set international standards.

Natsios also pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is not a “black swan event” that nobody saw coming; policymakers, institutions, academics, and think tanks have predicted such an event during the past few years. But outside times of crisis, easy solutions are pursued and disruptive choices are not made. Crises, therefore, provide shocks to the system that allow fundamental change.

Takeaway #4: No Issue is Too Big to Contribute to 

Hecht tied together this third takeaway to bring us to another: it is dangerous, as humans and as leaders, to think that a certain issue is too big and beyond our agency. Crises are not about self-interest, and often following good efforts that already exist is better than starting your own.

“Know your “superpower” and “activate the relationships you already have,” such as Living Cities’ long-term partnership with Cisco Systems, to create change where you can.”

“Whether it’s a crisis or not, we all leave so much power for change on the table because of lack of imagination or comfort. This is a time to lean into that and have some imagination.”

-Ben Hecht

Final Takeaways

The roundtable concluded with Crespin asking each participant what tips they have for their colleagues in their respective sectors, as well as what question they would like to pose to their counterparts in other sectors. 

Takeaway #5: Know What You Can Bring — and Bring Humility

Hecht reminded the audience to think about what they can bring to the table during a crisis, such as money, product, people, and relationships. He also added that leaders must be humble during the collaboration process and remember that a different sector knows itself as well as your sector knows its own. Recognize that each community has a history and crisis intervention should address both short-term and long-term effects.

Takeaway #6: Multi-Stakeholder and Multi-Sector Collaborations are like Relationships

Marmot reminded the audience that working across stakeholders and sectors is like being in a relationship. Success requires shared objectives, a bit of give and take, and respect for one another. Work toward collective objectives and have a bias to action.

Takeaway #7: Science and Political Buffers are Essential to COVID-19 Recovery 

Natsios asserted the importance of using this opportunity to strengthen international and domestic crisis-response systems. At the same time, we should not allow great power politics to interfere with purely scientific undertakings behind COVID-19 research. Establish multiple early warning systems to create a buffer for future pandemics, which have more political dimensions than other natural disasters. Ensure that pharmaceutical and vaccine development is carried out according to scientific principles, and quickly implemented in line with established international norms.


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